How the Man of no Capital gets along

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER III (10) start of chapter

A glance into the comfortable and spacious house, where Mrs. Reilly was employed in dressing a plump representative of the Reillys, afforded material for pleasing speculation; for near the big table at the opposite side of the room stood a pair whose conscious manner—the same kind of thing one may see in a drawing-room—evidently portended speedy employment for the resident priest for whose advent Jimmy M'Allister so ardently sighed.

Having visited many of the houses in the first great clearance, we drove through the forest, a distance of two miles, and came to a plain or valley of far greater extent, stretching five miles in one direction, but similar in its leading features to that which we had just left. It may be remarked, in order to be accurate, that the Crehan family were among the occupiers of this portion of the settlement; but as Mrs. Crehan was the second woman who had braved the difficulties of a life amidst the woods, I somewhat anticipated in her case. The vast tract stretching out before us was reclaimed, or cleared, on the low ground, and on the gentle elevation, and up the side of the mountain range that ran parallel to the plain.

Here, as in the first clearance, were the same evidences of the presence of man and the power of that most effective capital of all—human labour well directed. Decent houses and ample barns were to be seen in every direction; and, what was the most hopeful indication of the thrift and energy of the settlers, was the fact that, in very many instances, while the family still remained in the primitive log house, the barn for the reception and storage of grain and other produce was large, substantial, and built in the best style common to the province. In numerous cases we found settlers to possess two frame barns, with spacious piggeries constructed of logs, from which the well-known melodious sounds unceasingly issued. In a very rare instance was the original camp or shanty tenanted; but where it was still the dwelling-place of the family, a fair proportion of the land was cleared, and a good barn was filled with the produce of a prosperous season.

One of the settlers, named M'Mahon, had just completed a frame house which, for extent, outward appearance, and interior comfort and accommodation, was equal to almost any farmer's dwelling I had seen in New Brunswick, from Shediac to St. John, or from St. John to Johnville—a distance of 300 miles. M'Mahon had brought some capital into the forest, the result of his industry as a blacksmith. His new trade appeared to thrive with him, as he was surrounded with the most convincing evidences of prosperity and comfort.

It must not, however, be supposed that all who came into the settlement brought more or less pecuniary capital with them. Many—indeed, the majority—commenced without any capital save that comprised in their health, their strength, and their willingness to work. 'Nothing, sir, but my own four bones, a sharp axe, and the help of the Lord,' was the pithy and pious response of more than one toiler in the forest, as he was asked of his struggles and success. This is how the settler with no capital save that indicated in the reply mentioned, managed to 'get along.' Having earned, by working for others, as much as enabled him to procure an axe and provisions for a month or two, he boldly faced the forest, perhaps with a wife and one or more children. Fortunate was the settler if he could obtain the friendly assistance of a neighbour to raise the first rude shelter for his young wife and her infants; but in the earlier period of the short history of the settlement such assistance was not always procurable, and the pioneer of future civilisation had to construct his shanty 'any how he could.' Satisfied that he had thus secured a home for his wife and little ones, he laid about him vigorously with his keen axe, smiting many a tree which would have formed the proudest ornament of an English park, and prostrating pine, beech, oak, and maple, with the same unsparing energy. The rapid decrease of the scanty provisions would but too soon warn the breadwinner that he must linger no longer in the camp; and, leaving his loved ones to the protection of Providence, he would again go out in search of work, which was always to be found.

On the Saturday night the poor fellow might be seen—by the owls, were those grave birds on the lookout, or by a casual wayfarer like himself—trudging along the rough highway, or rude track, bearing on his shoulders the grateful burden of the next month's provisions, won in the sweat of his brow by honest toil. Thus he would work occasionally for others, and then slash around him with his trusty axe, until he had cleared a few acres, and planted them with grain and potatoes, built a barn, and gathered in the first blessed fruits of his industry. And so on, from the shanty to the log cabin, from the log cabin to the frame house, and the couple of barns, and the yoke of oxen, and the milch cows, and the flock of sheep, and the great breeding sow and her clamorous offspring,—so on to independence, comfort, and content. This is literally the substance of many a simple tale, gratefully volunteered, or easily elicited by a few leading questions.

The settlers of Johnville are invariably kind to each other, freely lending to a neighbour the aid which they may have the next day to solicit for themselves. By this mutual and ungrudging assistance, the construction of a dwelling, or the rolling of logs and piling them in a heap for future burning, has been quickly and easily accomplished; and crops have been cut and gathered in safely, which without such neighbourly aid might have been irrecoverably lost. This necessary dependence on each other for mutual help in the hour of difficulty draws the scattered settlers together by ties of sympathy and friendship; and while none envy the progress of a neighbour, whose success is rather a subject for general congratulation, the affliction of one of these humble families brings a common sorrow to every home. I witnessed a touching illustration of this fraternal and Christian sympathy.

Even in the heart of the primitive forest we have sickness, and death, and frenzied grief, just as in cities with histories that go back a thousand years. A few days previous to my visit a poor fellow had become mad, his insanity being attributed to the loss of his young wife, whose death left him a despairing widower with four infant children. He had just been conveyed to the lunatic asylum, and his orphans were already taken by the neighbours, and made part of their families. One of them peered curiously at my companion and myself from under the peak of a huge fur cap that almost rested on his little nose, as the Bishop was enquiring after the family of a fortunate settler, named Murphy, who had brought the eldest of the orphans to his comfortable home. How long these tender sympathies and beautiful charities may resist the influence of selfishness, or civilisation, I know not; but that they then existed in strength and holiness I was abundantly convinced.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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